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The Nebra find and early Indo-European religion

Kristian Kristiansen

Zusammenfassung
Der Fund von Nebra und die frhe indoeuropische
Religion
Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra wirft in paradigmatischer
Weise zentrale Fragen zum Wesen frhbronzezeitlicher Religion auf. Im Folgenden wird die These vertreten, dass man die
rituelle und religise Bedeutung der Himmelsscheibe verstehen kann, wenn man sie in ein greres, interdisziplinres
Wissen einordnet.
Es zeigt sich, dass sich die Scheibe sehr gut in ein rituelles
Deponierungsmuster einfgt, ebenso wie ihr Dualismus mit
einem hnlichen religisen Dualismus in der protoindoeuropischen Religion korrespondiert, der sich in den himmlischen oder Gttlichen Zwillingen darstellt. Die beiden Beile
und Schwerter sind die weltliche Darstellung dieser Gtter,
die die Sonne transportieren und deren sterbliche Reprsentanten anhand von in der gesamten Bronzezeit auftretenden
Doppeldeponierungen von Beilen, Schwertern, Helmen und
Luren identifiziert werden knnen.
Diese Interpretation untermauert ferner die Authentizitt
des Funds. Die einzigartige Bronzescheibe mit Sonne, Mond,
Sternen und Himmelsschiff untersttzt die These einer gemeinsamen, synkretistischen bronzezeitlichen Religion vom Nahen
Osten bis nach Skandinavien, die auf dem Sonnenkult basierte. So wie die Sonnenscheibe von Trundholm eine spezifisch
nordische Auslegung nahstlicher Sonnenscheiben ist, reprsentiert die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra eine Umsetzung von nahstlicher kosmologischer Ikonographie und Wissen, bertragen in einen europischen bronzezeitlichen Kontext. Sie zeigt,
dass der Mythos der Sonnenreise in einem komplexen astronomischen und kosmologischen Wissen verankert war, das Personen mit besonderer gesellschaftlicher Stellung ausbten, die in
Bestattungen und Horten identifiziert werden knnen.

Abstract
The Nebra find raises in paradigmatic way central questions
about the nature of early Bronze Age religion. In the following paper I propose that by placing it in a wider interdisciplinary field of knowledge it is possible to understand the ritual
and religious role of the Nebra find.
It can be demonstrated that it fits very well into a ritual
pattern of depositions, just as its dualism corresponds to a
similar religious dualism in Proto-Indo-European religion,
represented by the heavenly or Divine Twins. The two axes
and swords are a worldly representation of these gods who
carried the sun and whose mortal representatives can be
identified by the recurring deposition of twin axes, swords,
helmets and lurs throughout the Bronze Age.
This interpretation further supports the authenticity of
the find. The unique bronze disc with sun, moon, stars and
heavenly ship supports the interpretation of a shared, syncretistic Bronze Age religion from the Near East to Scandinavia
based upon a sun cult. Just as the Trundholm Sun Disc represents a specific Nordic interpretation of Near Eastern sun
discs, so the Nebra Sky Disc represents an interpretation of
Near Eastern cosmological iconography and knowledge,
transmitted to a European Bronze Age context. It indicates
that the myth of the journey of the sun was anchored in a
complex astronomic and cosmological system of knowledge
performed by people with a special position in Bronze Age
society, who can be identified in burials and hoard depositions.
Keywords: Bronze Age, ritual depositions, dualism, Divine
Twins

Schlsselbegriffe: Bronzezeit, rituelle Deponierungen, Dualismus, Gttliche Zwillinge

Introducing the Divine Twins


The Nebra nd combines well known ritual practices from
the Early Bronze Age with a unique object, a bronze disc
depicting the heavenly realm with moon, sun and stars and a
sun ship, all in gold (Meller 2oo4). It takes the idea of the
Bronze Age sun cult, as represented by the Trundholm Sun
Chariot, one step further back in time, and it indicates that
the myth of the journey of the sun (Kaul 1998, 262 g. 17o;
Kaul 2oo4) was anchored in a complex system of astronomic
and cosmological knowledge (Randsborg 2oo6, chapter X).
This knowledge originated in the Near East, where the sun
and moon are often displayed on seals.

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In Europe, however, it was wedded to a shared Indo-European religion, which placed the sun cult and its practitioners
in a milieu of dual gods (Gonda 1974; Olmstedt 1994; Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 258263). Most famous among them
were the so-called Divine Twins, the Vedic Asvins and the
Greek Dioscuri (Ward 1968; Ward 197o), who were brothers
of the sun goddess, her helpers and rescuers during the
night when she was taken away to the underworld. The
replay of this myth is testied in Nordic Bronze Age iconography, rock art and bronze gurines dating from 17oo5oo
BC (Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 318 g. 146; Kristiansen forthcoming). They are also said to represent the morning and

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evening star and the twin stars in the constellation of the


Gemini. This star constellation, which belongs to the winter
sky, could possibly be identied in the lower part of the
Nebra Disc as it consists of eight stars in a formation much
like what we see on the disc.
Their divine functions as rescuers of sailors, helpers in
battle, healers of illness, master musicians and dancers are
further testied by recurring scenes on rock art, bronze
work and gurines where they appear in pairs:
either as humans carrying cult axes and playing lurs, as
dancers with their staffs or poles (another of their attributes),
or in their transformed shape as horses1 pulling the sun,
or they transform into twin ships with horse heads
retaining their identity as they carry the sun safely
through the sea of the underworld.
However, there exists a link between this iconography and
its material attributes (axes, lurs), as these items are regularly found deposited, mostly in pairs throughout Central
and northern Europe (Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 318 g. 146).
I shall now discuss the meaning of these deposits, based on
the textual evidence of the Divine Twins in early IndoEuropean religion, the result of which will also pertain to the
Nebra hoard.

The Divine Twins and their Bronze Age material correlation


The textual evidence of the Divine Twins is securely dated
to the Bronze Age as they are referred to by their Vedic name
as divine protectors in a treaty between the vassal prince
Kurtiuaza of the Mitanni and his Hittite overlord and great
king Suppilutima from 135o BC. The most detailed evidence, however, comes from the Rigveda, probably written
down in the late second millennium BC, at the latest around
1ooo BC, but referring back to a much earlier period. The
Greek evidence is generally a bit later, and in Germanic and
Celtic texts the importance and the identity of the Divine
Twins have dwindled as they were written down much
later during the Iron Age and early Medieval period. Baltic
folklore retains more evidence of their role (Ward 1968; Zeller
199o). The importance of the Divine Twins is thus greater
the further back in time we go. This is supported by archaeological evidence that testies to their importance during the
Bronze Age whereas they seem to have disappeared more or
less during the Iron Age (Kristiansen 2oo3). Their role is
thus safely linked to the earliest stratum of Indo-European
religion.
While their role originally was as helpers of the sun goddess, circling day and night in their chariot to draw the sun
and break open the daylight, their roles seem to have changed
over time. Thus, in Greek and later Roman tradition one
twin represented the warrior function (horse) and the other
fertility and farming (cow; Ward 197o). However, there is a
peculiarity of the Divine Twins that makes them inter-

esting from an archaeological perspective, and that is their


role as communicators between gods and humans, which
include their many roles as rescuers, which dates back to the
Rigveda (Zeller 197o, 3684; Oberlies 1993). This is reected
also in the fact that in some legends the one twin is divine
while the other is human born and thus deadly. The obvious
implication of this is that if some gods can become human,
then some humans can also become divine. This theocratic
trait creates an alliance between the rules of the gods and the
ruling of humans, which materialize archaeologically. It explains the rich evidence of twin depositions and twin representations in iconography during the Bronze Age, beginning
already around 2ooo BC.
In the Early Bronze Age we nd a rare group of burials
and hoards with twin depositions of objects and chiey
males, the most prominent being Leubingen in Thuringia.
The two males, an old and a young person, were positioned
across each other in a cross, and so were their weapons, axes
and daggers. Here we have a twin deposition linked to the
burial of two aristocratic males. It indicates a special relationship between them and throws light on the widespread
deposition of twin axes and swords as well as other objects
in hoards. A similar cross deposition as in Leubingen is evidenced in a burial from Brittany (Hansen 2oo2, 156 Abb. 6),
just as the often large number of daggers and axes, which
suggests that the royal or chiey elites were connected by
trade and alliances.
However, during the Early Bronze Age it was more common to make ritual deposits of prestige goods in moors and
lakes or in the ground. In the ntice culture we nd, besides the many hoards with ring ingots, also depositions
especially of halberds and axes in pairs. In multi-type hoards
it is often possible to nd twin sets of ritual axes or halberds,
which suggests that several of these hoards had a ritual meaning. During Montelius Period 1, which corresponds to the
time of the Nebra hoard in Scandinavia, ritual axes and a
group of magnicent swords or scimitars of Hittite inspiration were deposited in pairs (Fig. 1). The scimitar was a royal
and divine attribute in the Middle East already from the
early second millennium BC, and in Hittite contexts we nd
besides the scimitar another divine attribute: the kalmus. It
is a staff with a crooked terminal and was originally a herding
staff. They were both symbols of paramount profane and
divine rank, to paraphrase Th. Larsson (1996, 78), and linked
to the sun god: den Krummstab kalmus, das Herrschaftssymbol des hethitischen Knigs und des Sonnengottes
(Haas 1994, 512f). Both these symbolic objects were employed in the Nordic realm where we nd the scimitar deposited in ritual hoards in pairs, and the kalmus is displayed
on rock art in Bohusln, western Sweden, carried by a sun
wheel gure/god (Fig. 2). These symbols and their transmission to northern Europe point to the same kind of international connections as those underlying the Nebra Disc and
the famous Kivik grave on the east coast of Scania in Sweden (Kristianen/Larsson 2oo5, 186212).
During the Early Bronze Age there was no strict differentiation between weapons that were deposited in individual

1 Their name Asvins means tamer of horses,


possessor of horses, born as horses.

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Abb. 1 Example of a twin deposition of swords


from Rrby, Denmark, from the same period as
the Nebra hoard.

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433

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DENMARK

FORM - MEANING - CONTEXT

In der Begeisterung des Soma sagt es der Ausija laut:


Ihr gewinnt des Dadhyanc Sinn und der Pferdekopf
stand euch Rede
Worber der Maghavan den Dadhyanc unterrichtete,
das sagte (dieser) euch mit dem Pferdekopf.
(excerpt from Zeller 199o, 79)
The role of the horse and especially its head in rituals is well
known. The horse was divine, and the Asvins were horse
born and symbolized by a horse head in some hymns. When
we nd the horse head as a main symbol on razors, which
could also have been used for medical and ritual purposes,
and when this very same group of graves also contains
a special type of full-hilted swords with spiral decoration
(the sun symbol), which were used mainly for parading
(Kristiansen 1984),
a spiral decorated war axe,
drinking cups with a protruding sun star at the bottom
and sometimes also a so-called shaman bag as in the
Hvidegrd grave,

ANATOLIA
Abb. 2 From Anatolia to Scandinavia. The international context of the
scimitar and herding staff (kalmus) linked to divine rulers and the sun god
in the Hittite kingdom and in Early Bronze Age Scandinavia.

graves, and those that were ritually deposited in pairs,


mainly in hoards, except that ritual twin depositions contained mostly unused and beautifully executed pieces.
During the Middle Bronze Age a differentiation took place
so that a class of divine cult objects was singled out for ritual
use only and was never or rarely deposited in burials (Vandkilde 1999, gs. 89). They are richly decorated cult-axes, later
also blowing instruments (lurs), bronze shields and helmets.
In addition a group of divine priestly burials was now characterized by an exclusive use of sun symbolism and horse
symbolism. I shall characterize only the male burials, but
they are paralleled by a group of female priestly burials with
sun discs and spiral decoration, which are often found in
ritual hoards as well (Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 298 ff.). In
the Tumulus culture the use of wheel pins may have had the
same symbolic meaning.
During Montelius Period 2 the horse head was a dening
attribute of a group of chiey priests in the Nordic realm as
we know them from rich tumuli burials. We nd it on the
handle of the razor, which is symbolically formed as a ship,
and also on the belt hooks (Fredell 2oo3, g. 5,14). The
importance of the horse head as a symbol of the Asvins and
their role as rescuers and helpers is apparent from the Vedic
texts:
Dem Dadhyanc, dem Atvarasohn, gabt ihr Asvin einen
Pferdekopf zum Ersatz.

then we have here all the attributes of a mortal Asvin or rather


a divine Asvin-priest. He was a medical expert/healer, a
war leader (but not a warrior), a leader of rituals and drinking ceremonies and also performing in the important rituals,
especially linked to the sun journey, as testied on rock art.
Later in the Bronze Age a goose or swan head replaced the
horse head on razors and ritual iconography, and ox horns
also became a dening element on the helmets they wore. It
corresponds to the several places in the Veda where the
Asvins are called bulls. The important role of honey (which
is the basis for mead) in the Veda is interesting, as it was an
important morning ritual for the Asvins in order to break
open the daylight. They used their whip to mix the honey
into the soma drink:
Wecke die beiden Frhanspanner auf: Die Asvins sollten
hierher kommen zum Trunke dieses Soma. Die auf gutem
Wagen die besten Wagenfahrer sind, die beiden Gtter,
die an den Himmel reichen, diese Asvins rufen wir. Eure
honighaltige, glckbringende Peitsche, ihr Asvin, mit der
wrget das Opfer.
Eure Wagen (und) Pferde, die strkungs- und honigreichen, fahren beim Hellwerden der Morgenrte aus, die
ganz zugedeckte Finsternis den Raum durchziehend.
(excerpt from Zeller 199o, 89 f.)
This ceremony is directly reected in the artful wooden cups
in the above group of graves where in two cases pollen analysis has demonstrated that they contained honey, probably
as an ingredient in mead/soma, a tradition that is also documented in the Single Grave culture of the third millennium
BC (Klassen 2oo5, 39 ff.). Thus, when the cup was lifted to
the mouth, the sun would rise as the protruding star at the
bottom became visible. I can think of no better parallel between a ritual text and its corresponding piece of material
culture although separated by thousands of kilometres but
once unied by Bronze Age long-distance networks and
their Eurasian origin in the third millennium BC.

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BURIAL B

BURIAL A

Abb. 3 Example of a double male burial of a ritual leader with full-hilted sword and staff (burial A) and a war leader with flange-hilted sword (burial B)
from southern Jutland.

We may conclude that a recurring twin symbolism characterized a certain segment of the material and iconographic
world of the Early and Middle Bronze Age in Central and
northern Europe. It was already introduced in the ntice
culture, and in the Leubingen grave we can link the twin
symbolism to a ritual pairing of princely twin males. In all
probability it dened a dual ritual leadership. Later, during
the Middle Bronze Age, a class of priestly chiefs can be dened. They were linked to the Asvins through horse head
symbolism and the exclusive use of sun symbolism through
spiral decoration and wheel symbolism. A small number of
double or twin male chiey burials continued the tradition
introduced by the Leubingen grave. The importance of the
ritual sphere is underlined by the production of special
ritual objects which are never found in burials. Thus, a complex ritual and religious system had emerged headed by
chiey priests (ritual leaders), who were in the service of the
Asvins or rather their worldly representatives. They constituted a ritualized, political leadership. Below them a chiey
group of warriors without ritual functions was now in place,
dened by the ange hilted sword. A large group of commoners, who are ritually invisible, must be assumed to have

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supported this chiey structure, which was anchored in each


local community.
Thus, the twin swords and axes in the Nebra hoard correspond to a widely shared ritual tradition of such depositions,
which is the material that correlates to the Divine Twins
in Bronze Age ritual. It is further supported by the Nebra
Disc which links the Divine Twins (twin axes and swords)
and the sun cult together and thus conrms their intimate
relation.

Divine Twins and twin kings a Bronze Age tradition


The material and iconographic correlates of the myths of the
Divine Twins are most clearly represented during the
Bronze Age. In the Vedic texts they are the most popular
god, and also in Greece they were very popular. They helped
Indra, their mothers brother and thus uncle, to get the soma
from Tvastar, the sky father, which suggests their importance in the second and third generation of gods. Therefore
they are constantly referred to as young. Based on archaeological evidence from Europe, it is clear that the Divine
Twins were dominant gods during the second millennium

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BC. Their popularity was linked to the expansion of the war


chariot after 2ooo BC, which they used to drive around the
earth with the sun. However, in the Vedic texts it is rather
described as a cart with three wheels (or sets of wheels?),
and in this it corresponds to the sun chariot from Duplje,
which has three wheels (Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 3o6 f.
g. 139), but also the cart carrying the horse and the sun in
the Trundholm miniature could be considered as a three
axle cart. These examples suggest that the Vedic texts refer
to the use of miniatures which were to be rolled in rituals
and therefore needed an extra set of wheels.
The Divine Twins probably originated in the third millennium BC, as we have a number of double male burials
which may correspond to the twin chiefs/priests of the
Bronze Age (Madsen 197o). The tumulus barrow is also a sun
symbol, so its role in Indo-European religion dates back to
this period. Also the recurring beaker in male burials was
linked to ritual drinking as it contained mead or beer (Klassen 2oo5). Rich female burials with two sun shaped amber
discs may further refer to a ritual role in the sun cult whereas
the dominant war axe or rather axe hammer in male burials
may be a symbol of the oldest god, the sky god Tvastar.
However, it is not until the Bronze Age proper from 2ooo
BC onwards that a richer material culture and outstanding
conditions of preservation in oak cofn burials in Denmark
allow us to reconstruct the religious institutions linked to
the sun cult and the Divine Twins or rather their earthly
representatives. By this time the second and third generation of young gods, headed by the Divine Twins, had taken
precedence. They are often referred to as young and shining,
and their roles were numerous. By acting as mediators between the sky and the earth, between the divine and the profane, they instituted a divine, ritualized leadership based
upon dual kings or twin chiefs. N. Wagner already pointed
out this relationship in 196o (Wagner 196o). He also pointed
to the role of the Divine Twins in training young warriors
as they were supreme sportsmen, winners of running and
boxing contests in the rst Olympic Games but also dancers
and leaders of the weapon dance (a training programme).
Thus, he linked them to the training and initiation of young
warriors, which would then be in the hands of their earthly
representatives, the twin kings.
Wagner (196o) further pointed to several examples from
later Germanic sources of twin or dual leadership, the most
well known being Horsa and Hengist of the Jutes (which
migrated to Kent in England in the fth century AD), and
whose ritualized names refer to horses. Also among the
Greeks we do nd dual kingship, most famous again with
the Spartans, who traced it back to the Dioscuri, which were
their national gods. The Spartans were originally migrants,
just like the Jutes in Kent. Wagner therefore pointed to a
possible relationship between dual leadership and conquest
migrations, leading to the foundation of new royal lineages
and chiefdoms.
The introduction of new traditions was another characteristic feature of the Divine Twins. This could just as well
be linked to travelling, and therefore they were also the pro-

tectors and rescuers of sailors and travellers. The Divine


Twins were eternal travellers in their golden chariot and
thus epitomized the importance of speed and travelling in
the new more international and interconnected Bronze Age
world. That was part of their dominant position. Their chariot further represented the new warrior aristocracy, which
rose to power throughout Eurasia after 2ooo BC and often
based on dual leadership.
Looking at the archaeological evidence it lends support to
the dominant role of dual leadership in the Bronze Age. We
have a few examples of double male burials, where a ritual
chief and a warrior chief were buried together (Fig. 3). The
question is how it relates to the performance of Divine
Twins on rock art and in ritual depositions. Here mortal
chiefs with ritual functions played the role of the twins at
the large ceremonies.
Thus, we have at hand two possible models of dual leadership:
one that was constituted by two divine/political leaders;
one that was constituted by a divine/political leader and
a warrior chief.
In the later case we must assume a subordination of the warrior chief to the divine chief, which represented the highest
leadership constituted in heaven by the Divine Twins. In
the rst case, the leadership was a replay of the Divine
Twins and thus represented two equals, who may not have
met regularly but only on occasions of large rituals where
they had to perform together. I leave the question open as
we have evidence which points to both models, and they
may indeed have co-existed. However, in Indo-European
mythology the dual leadership of the rst, divine function
was long ago demonstrated by G. Dumezil to be a widespread phenomenon from India to Rome and Scandinavia
(Dumezil 1988). One might envisage that a ritual/political
leader or king, supported by a war leader in periods of warfare, constituted local political leadership. The Divine Twin
leadership would thus have represented a higher level of leadership, for a whole chiefdom or kingdom, whereas the ritual
leader and warrior chief would have been the normal model
at community levels.
The Greek evidence supports it where in Mycenaean
times the great king was named wanax whereas the war
leader was named lavagetas and subordinate to him. This
relationship could often be one of foster brothers, as in the
case of Achilles and Patrocles. The Spartan model of two
equal kings would thus represent an old Bronze Age heritage
that the Dorians brought with them from the northern Balkans into their new territories. The beginning of this dual
leadership instituted in heaven is thus represented by the
Leubingen burials and in the many following twin depositions, of which the Nebra hoard is the most prominent. It
represents a wedding between old Indo-European religion
and new astronomical knowledge from the Near East, which
also characterized other areas of Bronze Age society and
which lends the Bronze Age a unique historical character.

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Illustration credits
1
2
3

after Larsson 1996, fig. 15


adapted from Larsson 1996, fig. 15
Kristiansen/Larsson 2oo5, 276
fig. 122

Address
Prof Dr Kristian Kristiansen
University of Gothenburg
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Box 2oo
4o53o Gteborg
Sweden
k.kristiansen@archaeology.gu.se

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